A Case Against Omniscience: Fallibility

10. Conclusion

Thinking and Reasoning: A Very Short Introduction by Jonathan St. B. T. Evans

A central claim of classical theism is that God possesses certain perfection-making attributes. One of those attributes is omniscience. Whatever else is meant by 'omniscience', in the least, it includes the notion of knowing the truth of all true propositions. My aim in this essay was to scrutinize critically whether any thinker who knows could possibly know every truth. Using a series of informal and formal arguments, I mounted the case that a thinker who knows could not possibly eliminate all reasons for doubting that it is truly omniscient. Robbed of the prospect of knowing infallibly that one is omniscient, any thinker thinking itself to be omniscient has reason to conclude that it is not, in fact, omniscient. And with that, the notion of a God in the classical sense collapses.

In the face to this conclusion, the options for a classical theist are to either abandon a classical God in favour of a God with imperfections or to give up on the idea of 'God' altogether and adopt atheism. Taking up the former option raises the question of whether any such lesser God remains worthy of worship. Adopting the latter option, on the other hand, requires the theist to make many radical readjustments in their world view.

A third option for the theist is to contest the conclusion of my argument. In the final part of my essay, I considered a number of objections. The first objection that I considered is that I have, contradictorily, first assumed that Thinker X is omniscient and then denied it. My answer was that the initial premises in my argument state conditionals only.

Next, to the objection that doubt does not apply to an omniscient being, I pointed out that my argument starts from considering thinkers who think itself omniscient and not from a thinker that is omniscient. I then moved on to a similar objection: that God has some perfection-making attribute that makes him immune from error. Here, I responded that my argument applies whatever perfection-making attribute God is thought to possess.

The fourth objection I considered points out that my argument only applies to a God that is claimed to be omniscient. To that, I replied that the claim of omniscience is central to classical theism and that doing without it puts into question God's worship-worthiness. The next objection sought to redefine 'omniscience' to exclude knowing that which it is logically impossible to know. Here, I responded that my argument is not making the claim of logical impossibility and that, in any case, stripping back the meaning of 'omniscience' so severely robs God of his divine greatness.

Is Atheism Dead? by Eric Metaxas

The sixth objection questions the requirement that for a knowledge claim to be accepted it must be justified. To this, I answered that such unjustified claims to knowledge cannot be distinguished from mere subjective opinion. The next objection I examined claims that my support for premise (5) was question-begging; assuming the truth of what I am trying to prove. In my response, I explained how premise (5) alone does not entail my conclusion.

The final four objections I considered were more sophisticated, requiring a longer detailed response in order to do them justice. The first of these objections rests on the claim that God does not use discursive reasoning. Here, I pointed out that, absent of a good reason for thinking it true, any cognizant thinker believing it knows non-discursively knows that it may simply be deluded. Furthermore, using examples from mathematics and logic, I argued that the idea of universal non-discursive knowledge is incoherent.

The next more difficult objection is that my fifth premise is false as God is a member of the set of thinkers that think itself omniscient and yet has no reason to doubt its omniscience. To that, I replied that it is a mistake to assume that at that point in my argument, God is included in the set of thinkers that think itself omniscient.

The third objection I examined was that it's possible that truths are immediately transparent to God as he brings them about by a pure act of will. My response here was multi-pronged. First, I showed how creation from will does not eliminate all doubt. Second, I highlighted the inescapable possibility that this posited God trapped himself within his own self-imposed epistemic prison. Third, I showed how taking an internalist perspective exposes the epistemic arrogance of this kind of posited God and, finally, I pointed out how this flavour of omniscience leads to the absurd conclusion that God created himself.

The final objection seeks to subvert consideration of my argument from the outset, claiming that God's way of knowing is incomparable to the limitations of the human intellect. Here, I illustrated how the classical theists' meaning of 'omniscience' and 'know' as they apply it to God so strips these terms of their essential semantic characteristics to the extent that they have abandoned their claim that God is 'all-knowing'.

Having disposed of these eleven objections to my conclusion that the classical God cannot possibly exist, the classical theist is left in the unenviable position of either adopting a lesser God or abandoning the 'God' concept altogether.

I am grateful to Tim Anderson and Frankie Dunleavy for submitting comments and criticism of an earlier version of this essay. I am especially indebted to Christian Cotton for his many detailed critiques, comments and suggestions. I remain wholly responsible for any errors and omissions in the published version.

Copyright © 2022

Initial draft       Aug 9,   2022
Revised draft  Nov 8,   2022 (Extensive revisions and additions)
Revised draft  Nov 28, 2022 (Expanded reply to Obj. 2; added Obj. 10)
Revised draft  Dec 5,   2022 (Added Obj. 11)
Revised draft  Dec 14, 2022 (Expanded Obj. 6 and References)

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